Mr. Personality, which aired on Fox for a scant five weeks in 2003, was a show about a single woman choosing between 20 men to find the love of her life. That was the standard part, accompanied by two stranger details: All the men had to wear masks (okay, kinky, but not so weird), and it was hosted by a post-Clinton scandal Monica Lewinsky (excuse me, what?).
Produced during the height of what some described as reality televsion’s “golden era,” Mr. Personality’s premise was simple, if gimmicky: What if instead of judging romantic partners on their looks, they were judged solely on their personalities? Putting that into motion for a TV audience turned out to be a somewhat convoluted process. Like on The Bachelor, which premiered in 2002, Mr. Personality challenged one woman, obviously a beautiful one, to find the love of her life out of a selection of 20 “average-looking,” mask-wearing men. The men had to wear their masks at all times, except for when they went with the woman to a special, dark room, where the man would remove his mask and the woman, hilariously, was allowed to feel his face. The men were also forbidden from revealing their professions.
Producers hoped that the presence of Lewinsky, who had found a living in selling handbags online, would set the show apart. If anything, it only exposed Lewinsky, who was 29 at the time, to even more public shaming. At the time, she was trying to rehabilitate her image. The year before, she had appeared on an HBO special in which she fielded questions about her life, town-hall style. “There, sitting casually on the edge of the stage in a black pantsuit, Ms. Lewinsky tries to project the image of a well-adjusted, forward-looking person, who was treated badly by Bill Clinton, Linda Tripp and the media,” The New York Times wrote in a review of the show. “She actually projects the image of an emotionally distraught person trapped by her past, who was treated badly by Bill Clinton, Linda Tripp and the media.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the reaction to Lewinsky’s role on Mr. Personality was roundly dismissive. “If you were trying to put the past behind you and restore your good name, would you become a reality TV host?” wrote Joanne Ostrow in The Denver Post. “Ah, but you are not Monica Lewinsky. And for that you must count your blessings.” “Monica Lewinsky at last has a television series and a network worthy of her immeasurable talents,” Ed Bark mused in The Wichita Eagle. “It's Fox's Mr. Personality, which surely must be the bottom of the bin in the lately faltering "reality" show genre. If not, America might as well elect Anna Nicole Smith president and switch its collective intellect to a permanent ‘Off.’ Really, what's the point in going on?” “When she's asked, ‘What's the most humiliating thing you've ever done?’ she has a new answer,” joked Tina Fey at the 2003 Matrix Awards.
In an effort to understand the time, and this bizarre show, better, I talked to some of the people involved with making it happen. In this brief oral history, The Outline spoke with casting directors Sheila Conlin and Katy Wallin, producer Scott Firestone, mask designer Tina Haatainen-Jones, and former contestant Brian Karalus. (Through a spokesperson, Monica Lewinsky declined to comment for this piece. Mr. Personality bachelorette Hayley Arp and winner William Dyck did not respond to request for comment.) Here’s what some of those who know Mr. Personality best told me.
Sheila Conlin (casting director): It was like the race to see who's gonna get what show on the air first. It was a crazy, crazy time, but Mr. Personality was right there in the beginning.
Katy Wallin (casting director): Back then it was like, What is reality? [Audiences] weren't sure what they were really watching, but they certainly knew they were enjoying it.
Scott Firestone (producer): The [executive producer], Brian Gadinsky, told me about it in a coffee shop across from Sunset Tower Studios, and he was very excited about it. I thought it was an interesting premise and if executed right it could have been a great show... It was the early days so I thought, Ok, well this could work.
Conlin: When I first heard about the concept, I was like, Oh my god, this is very cool because it was so true. You judge based on what you're seeing. But how are you gonna really be able to pull this off and get to know someone with a mask over their face? I think my first question then was like, well what kind of mask? That's kind of creepy. You're talking to someone and you're trying to you know fall in love with them or kiss them and they're wearing a crazy mask?
Firestone: I think it probably did come off rather ridiculously in the end.
Production called upon Haatainen-Jones to make the masks for the show. A costume arts professor and freelance costume designer who had previously worked on live performances, Mr. Personality was Haatainen-Jones’s first and last foray into reality television.
Tina Haatainen-Jones (mask designer): I thought it was stupid… [But] I was always up for something that I was actually building with my hands. And I was a freelance artist, so you kind of take the job... They wanted a mask without any personality. So just a neutral mask, which even neutral is a personality. They wanted the mouths out so people could talk, but that's all.
I wanted to make them more interesting, so I made it like a beaten metal kind of sculpture. They wanted 30 metallic masks to put on the crowd [of bachelors] when they first started, for the first kind of ballroom scene or something, as I recall. Very strange. Thirty men in pewter silver masks that all look alike except for their hair color… They wanted 10 different colored masks in the same style and they would be assigned to each of the 10 contestants... I don't remember what happened with this, but they asked me to make a special chastity mask.
It all sounds so absurd now, but I made it attached with leather straps that went over and around the head in such a way that you could not remove the mask. And I put metal loops on it so it was padlocked together in the back, so that if the mask spent the night with the the contestant, she couldn't remove the mask to see the person. It sounds ridiculous. And to tell you the truth, I don't know if they used it or not. But they wanted me to hold the key for the chastity mask, and I was the only one that could get them out. I don't remember doing the actual locking anybody in the mask. Maybe they even decided it was stupid. I didn't stay through the culmination of the whole thing. I just made sure everything was working and then I moved on.
According to Conlin and Wallin, who both still work in unscripted television casting, some of reality TV’s now-standard vetting processes were first conceived on Mr. Personality. The potential dangers of all that reality had quickly revealed themselves: A year earlier, Big Brother’s Justin Sebik became the first person to get kicked off of a reality show for holding a knife to a fellow contestant’s neck. Mr. Personality contestants were put through extensive medical and psychological evaluations, background checks, and STD tests as part of the vetting process.
The woman tasked with finding the love of her life on Mr. Personality was Hayley Arp, a 26-year-old stockbroker from Atlanta. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on the day Mr. Personality premiered, Arp said that she was a fan of reality dating shows like Joe Millionaire and was connected to a casting director when a friend gave them her number. “I was just so intrigued by it,” she said of Mr. Personality’s premise. “Here was an opportunity to find 20 decent men who aren't criminals and don't have mental illnesses and are all good guys.”
One of those guys was Brian Karalus, a criminal defense attorney from St. Paul.
Brian Karalus (contestant): [We learned about the masks] when we got there. It was ridiculous... I was kind of an anomaly on the show. My legal secretary had sent in the application. It's really not my style. Most of the guys that were on that were seeking to be in TV entertainment, and that kind of thing. And I would say that was almost everybody moved to L.A. after.
All I knew is that it was supposed to be based on personality. They gave us very little information. I had no idea Monica Lewinsky was going to be on there. That was circus-like. I had no clue, and had I known that, I don't think I would've done it.
I have no regrets in doing it. But I think that that alone would have been enough for me to go that's ridiculous. I'm not fucking doing this. But it was right after Joe Millionaire premiered [in January 2003]. I'm a 28-year-old kid from modest means, just started out as a young lawyer, and single. And I'm thinking, fuck, what if I win a million bucks?
Mr. Personality didn’t have a cash prize. But despite the negative reviews, and the fact that it premiered during National TV-Turnoff Week, the show proved an attractive spectacle, at least briefly. More than 12 million people tuned into its premiere, though by the second episode, viewership had dropped 29 percent, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. By the season’s end, interest waned enough that Fox cut down the finale from two hours to one, as reported in USA Today. (That the first episode of the three-night Season 2 finale of the wildly popular American Idol aired the same night (and drew 16.9 million viewers, according to the AP) was likely a factor.) Still, more than 11 million people tuned in to watch Arp take the mask off of her new love, a real estate investor named William Dyck, and see his face for the first time. The moment lives on in the work of newspaper critics.
In his final plea for Arp's affection, Dyck, 28, went for the heart. First, he told her he loved her. Then, in front of television viewers, Dyck dropped to one knee and proposed. An estimated audience of 11.5 million viewers watched Arp say yes. That's when the show's host, Monica Lewinsky, pointed out that Arp had just agreed to marry a man she had never seen. When Dyck finally was unmasked, Arp summed up her feelings in two words: ‘Um, wow.’
“Even a reality show as vilified as Fox's Mr. Personality, the show hosted by Monica Lewinsky in which a female supposedly picked her future husband from a series of masked men, benefits from FM buzz. It had a healthy rating here Monday, when the woman doing the choosing blindly picked a millionaire before ever seeing his face. Once he took his mask off, all she could do was laugh and smile and kiss him. It was the fairy tale ending that America seems to want now more than ever. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a Mr. Personality 2.
Neither FOX nor Nash Entertainment, which produced the show, has Mr. Personality available online. Both claimed in emails to me that the other has the rights to original footage of the show; the only links to footage I scrounge up are clips of commercials uploaded to YouTube. Old newspaper articles and message boards are the some of the only sources to find out what actually happened on Mr. Personality. They tell us Lewinsky’s screen time was limited, that Arp emerged as a likeable but tepid star, and that one of the finalists worked as a motivational speaker, listened to motivational tapes while he slept, and tried to hypnotize Arp in order to win.
For posterity, however, what matters most about Mr. Personality are the alarmist reactions it inspired. It became a punching bag that signified everything critics considered “wrong” about the genre. As Mark Perigard wrote in The Boston Herald, “But as war rolls over the tube, the so-called reality shows just seem irrelevant….. Fox's upcoming dating show Mr. Personality with a disgraced and disgraceful Monica Lewinsky hosting as a woman chooses among several masked men, sounds like an early April Fools' joke. The courtship could be finally over for reality TV. Time for viewers to say, ‘I don't.’”
Wallin: People hadn't seen reality, so it was pretty captivating. Now, it becomes more challenging because it's such a saturated marketplace. The goal is to still find real people. But back then it was like, What is reality? [Audiences] weren't sure like they were really watching, but they certainly knew they were enjoying it. I just remember thinking that this area of television was probably going to explode, and it did.
Karalus: This was the very beginning of all this reality TV. It's a joke now. I don't talk about it. I wouldn't call it embarrassing, but I certainly don't bring it up to anyone. When they bring it up, I laugh and say it was a fun experience, like jumping out of an airplane. I did it. You know, that's it.
Do I watch any of the dating reality shows? No, I haven't seen one of them in 20 years. I date a lot of women that watch them and their girlfriends get together and I just laugh at them I'm like I'm not watching that garbage. Sorry if i'm being too mean about that stuff, I sound like a hypocrite, but I'm like I can't watch this. It hurts my head. My show included.
After Mr. Personality, reality television would go on to become even more twisted and grotesque (if you’ve forgotten about 2010’s Bridalplasty consider yourself lucky), while also becoming part of the air we breathe. With a reality TV show star as our president, it’s no wonder that outrageous unscripted shows — like Dr. Pimple Popper, Live PD: Women on Patrol, Floribama Shore, The Proposal, Seatbelt Psychic, and the upcoming MTV Jackass-esque series Too Stupid to Die — are once again bubbling up alongside the current spate of nostalgic revivals and reboots. Whatever sign of our culture’s downfall comes next, it’ll be one we’ve probably seen before.